Using Mindfulness to Weave Compassion into the 2013-07-20آ  mindfulness, wisdom, resilience, compassion,

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    Using Mindfulness to Weave Compassion into the Brain

    Freiburg June 14, 2013

    Rick Hanson, Ph.D. The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom

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     Self-directed neuroplasticity

     The negativity bias

     Neurobhavana

     The fruit and the path

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    Self-Directed Neuroplasticity

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    The Natural Mind

    Apart from the hypothetical influence of a transcendental X factor . . .

    Awareness and unconsciousness, mindfulness and delusion, and happiness and suffering must be natural processes.

    Mind is grounded in life.

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    Mental activity entails underlying neural activity.

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    Ardent, Diligent, Resolute, and Mindful

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    Repeated mental activity entails repeated neural activity.

    Repeated neural activity builds neural structure.

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    Lazar, et al. 2005. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16, 1893-1897.

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    The Opportunity

    We can use the mind

    To change the brain

    To change the mind for the better

    To benefit ourselves and other beings.

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    Working with Causes and Effects

    Mental and physical phenomena arise, persist, and pass away due to causes.

    Causes in the brain are shaped by the mental/neural states that are activated and then installed within it. States become traits.

    The neural traits of inner “poisons” (e.g., hatred, greed, heartache, delusion) cause suffering and harm.

    The neural traits of inner strengths (e.g., virtue, mindfulness, wisdom, resilience, compassion, etc.) cause happiness and benefit for oneself and others.

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    The Causes of Inner Strengths

    How do we build the neural traits of inner strengths?

    Inner strengths are mainly built from positive experiences.

    You develop mindfulness by repeatedly being mindful; you develop compassion by repeatedly feeling compassionate; etc.

    The brain is like a VCR or DVR, not an iPod: you must play the song to record it - you must experience the strength to install it in your brain.

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    A Bottleneck For Growing Inner Strengths The problem is that, for survival reasons, the brain is

    poor at turning positive states into neural traits.

    It is bad at learning from good experiences compared to how good it is at learning from bad experiences.

    This design feature of the brain creates a kind of bottleneck that reduces the conversion of positive mental staits to positive neural traits.

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    The Negativity Bias

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    Evolutionary History

    The Triune Brain

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    Three Fundamental Motivational and Self-Regulatory Systems

     Avoid Harms:  Primary need, tends to trump all others

     Approach Rewards:  Elaborated via sub-cortex in mammals for

    emotional valence, sustained pursuit

     Attach to Others:  Very elaborated via cortex in humans for pair

    bonding, language, empathy, cooperative planning, compassion, altruism, etc.

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    The Homeostatic Home Base

    When not disturbed by threat, loss, or rejection [no deficit of safety, satisfaction, and connection]

    The body defaults to a sustainable equilibrium of refueling, repairing, and pleasant abiding.

    The mind defaults to a sustainable equilibrium of:  Peace (the Avoiding system)  Contentment (the Approaching system)  Love (the Attaching system)

    This is the brain in its homeostatic Responsive, minimal craving mode.

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    Neurobiological Basis of Craving

    When disturbed by threat, loss, or rejection [deficit of safety, satisfaction, or connection]:

    The body fires up into the stress response; outputs exceed inputs; long-term building is deferred.

    The mind fires up into:  Hatred (the Avoiding system)  Greed (the Approaching system)  Heartache (the Attaching system)

    This is the brain in allostatic, Reactive, craving mode.

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    Choices . . .


    Reactive Mode Responsive Mode

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    The Negativity Bias

     As our ancestors evolved, avoiding “sticks” was more important for survival than getting “carrots.”

     Preferential encoding in implicit memory:  We learn faster from pain than pleasure.  Negative interactions: more impactful than positive  Easy to create learned helplessness, hard to undo  Rapid sensitization to negative through cortisol

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    Velcro for Bad, Teflon for Good

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    Considering the Costs and Benefits

     As we evolved, the short-term benefits of the negativity bias outweighed its long-term costs.

     But now - when we want to live long and well, and when we are exposed to chronic mild to moderate Reactive stressors with little time for Responsive recovery - this design feature is a kind of “bug” for human brains in the 21st century.

     This is also a key weakness of therapy, human potential trainings, and character education: many hard-won positive states are wasted on the brain.

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    Cultivation in Context

     Three ways to engage the mind:  Be with it. Decrease negative. Increase positive.  The garden: Observe. Pull weeds. Plant flowers.  Let be. Let go. Let in.  Mindfulness present in all three ways to engage mind

     While “being with” is primary, it’s often isolated and privileged in mindfulness-based practices.

     Skillful means for decreasing the negative and increasing the positive have developed over 2500 years. Why not use them?

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    HEAL by Taking in the Good

    1. Have a positive experience. Notice it or create it.

    2. Enrich the experience through duration, intensity, multimodality, novelty, personal relevance

    3. Absorb the experience by intending and sensing that it is sinking into you as you sink into it.

    4. Link positive and negative material.

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    Let’s Try It

     Notice the experience already present in awareness that you are alright right now  Have the experience  Enrich it  Absorb it

     Create the experience of compassion  Have the experience - bring to mind someone you care

    about . . . Feel caring . . . Wish that he or she not suffer . . . Open to compassion

     Enrich it  Absorb it

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    It’s Good to Take in the Good

     Development of specific inner strengths  “Antidote experiences” - “By love they will quench the

    fires of hate” (the Buddha)

     Implicit benefits:  Being active rather than passive  Treating yourself like you matter  Training of attention and executive functions

     Gradual sensitization of the brain to the positive: like Velcro for the good

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    The Four Ways to Offer a Method

     Doing it implicitly

     Teaching it and then leaving it up to the person

     Doing it explicitly with the person

     Asking the person to do it on his or her own

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    The Fruit and the Path

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    The Fruit as the Path




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    Think not lightly of good, saying, "It will not come to me.”

    Drop by drop is the water pot filled.

    Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little,

    fills oneself with good.

    Dhammapada 9.122

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    Great Books

    See for other great books.

     Austin, J. 2009. Selfless Insight. MIT Press.  Begley. S. 2007. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. Ballantine.  Carter, C. 2010. Raising Happiness. Ballantine.  Hanson, R. (with R. Mendius). 2009. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical

    Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. New Harbinger.  Johnson, S. 2005. Mind Wide Open. Scribner.  Keltner, D. 2009. Born to Be Good. Norton.  Kornfield, J. 2009. The Wise Heart. Bantam.  LeDoux, J. 2003. Synaptic Self. Penguin.  Linden, D. 2008. The Accidental Mind. Belknap.  Sapolsky, R. 2004. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Holt.  Siegel, D. 2007. The Mindful Brain. Norton.  Thompson, E. 2007. Mind in Life. Belknap.

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    Key Papers - 1

    See for other scientific papers.

     Atmanspacher, H. & Graben, P. 2007. Contextual emergence of mental states from neurodynamics. Chaos & Complexity Letters, 2:151-168.

     Baumeister, R., Bratlavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K. 2001. Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5:323-370.

     Braver, T. & Cohen, J. 2000. On the control of control: The role of dopamine in regulating prefrontal function and working memory; in Control of Cognitive Processes: Attention and Performance XVIII. Monsel, S. & Driver, J.


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